When the town of Easton commissioned a consulting firm to conduct a study exploring the effects of closing one of Easton's three fire stations in 1997, it drew a number of conclusions about Easton's emergency response time and ability to adequately deploy personel to various locations within town.
But, according to Fire Chief Thomas Stone, the biggest question on most people's mind was never fully answered.
"They came up with a number of recommendations, and to be honest with you, they never really answered the question of whether you need two fire stations or you need three fire stations," he said. "The only thing they really said was the town was too big to do it with one fire station."
And, with the town facing a budget crisis in Fiscal Year 2012, it is a question that has been raised once again.
At a meeting last week, the Easton Board of Selectmen voted to form a committee dedicated to studying the effects of closing one of the three fire stations located in Easton. The decision to close one and leave three positions in the department vacant in the upcoming fiscal year would save the town approximately $150,000 in salaries, according to Town Administrator David Colton.
"You’re talking about three firefighters and you’re talking about a fire station," Colton said last week. "I would feel better if the town would make that recommendation."
In order to keep three fire stations open, the fire department needs to keep at least seven people on duty, allowing for six firefighters out of the door in the case of an emergency and one dispatcher. Cutting down to two fire stations would result in four firefighters responding to emergencies.
According to Stone, four responders for a town of 23,000 people and nearly 30 square miles just isn't enough.
"If one station is closed, we’re short of our normal manpower, plus the response times are increased to a large portion of the town because that station is no longer available to respond," he said.
Currently, there are 35 firefighter positions in town including three vacancies. Cutting the three positions would leave 32 firefighters, two of which are the fire chief and fire prevention officer, leaving 30 firefighters to house three stations.
The result has been a depletion of overtime funds, which will result in closing Easton's Depot Street Station at least 50% of the time remaining in this fiscal year. The committee would look into removing the three positions permanently and therefore shutting down one station permanently.
"The Town Administrator - to his credit, he’s got to do what he’s got to do, and he’s got to find places to save some money," Stone said. "He did survey the surrounding towns and he did find out that Easton is the only one that has three fire stations. But, the bigger issue is not so much how many stations, but how many people are in that station."
Two fire stations in town would man four firefighters prepared to head "out-the-door." While other towns have less than three stations, they allow for more people. While Mansfield, a town of similar population (23,000) and area (20.2) to Easton has two fire stations, eight firefighers are prepared to leave at any given time.
Similarly, the town of Foxborough, with a population of 17,000 and area of 20 square miles only has one fire house, but six firefighters are always on duty.
"It’s budgetary and it’s to try to maintain an adequate level of response times," said Stone. "One of the issues with Easton is we’re similar in a lot of ways to all of these communities, but Easton is kind of unique also in we’re just under 30 square miles, so we are kind of the largest one in area."
Stone also pointed to Easton's geographic make-up as an issue-area.
"The study pointed out in 1997 that we sort of have a poor road network," he said. "We really don’t have any direct connector other than Depot Street that really goes from one side of town to the other side of town in a direct route. The only one that really does that is Depot Street, which happens to be the street that Station Two is located on."
Station Two, which was originally constructed in 1934, is old and in need of repairs, according to Stone. It would likely be the station forced to close its doors, despite its location.
The committee appointed to study the results of leaving three vacancies and closing one station permanently would consist of three people and work within approximately a month and a half. Selectman Sean Noonan has already volunteered to be a member of the committee. Stone said that while there will not be a firefighter on the committee, the department will work regularly in the process to provide input.
Colton's suggestion to form the committee and explore the idea is in response to a projected $2 million deficit in Fiscal Year 2012. According to the Town Administrator, the budget crunch could result in three - four dozen layoffs. While eliminating three vacant positions in the Fire Department would be a way to save $150,000 without laying off any employees.
"Every department in town has been feeling the budget crunch, and I think every department is trying to do more with less," said Stone. "When you talk about public safety, doing more with less gets a little more dangerous, though."